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Boris Johnson: Brexit and beyond – what’s in the new PM’s in-tray?

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It’s not just Brexit gnawing away at the national conscience. There’s funding for England’s schools…

Brexit is THE priority of Boris Johnson’s government.

The new prime minister has pledged the UK will leave the European Union on 31 October. If an agreement with Brussels can’t be struck by then, the UK will leave without a deal, he says.

The existing withdrawal agreement – struck between Theresa May’s government and the EU, but never passed by Parliament – is “dead”, Mr Johnson has said, although parts of it can be salvaged.

His focus will need to be on the parts he believes can’t be saved, chiefly:

  • the Irish backstop – effectively an insurance policy that guarantees a soft border between the Irish republic and Northern Ireland if no trade deal is sealed
  • the £39bn “divorce settlement” – money the UK will pay Brussels to settle its financial obligations
  • no deal – the cost of leaving the EU without agreed terms
  • zero tariffs – the pledge Mr Johnson made to calm the effect on the UK economy of no deal, by keeping taxes on goods traded between the UK and EU at zero. This would require the agreement of both sides

(Our Reality Check team has more detail on these, here. )

Navigating the UK through Brexit is no mean task, but it’s not the only demand on Mr Johnson’s time. One criticism of Theresa May’s time in Number 10 is that other important decisions that affected the future of the UK were put on hold because Brexit became all-consuming.

But these nagging priorities have not gone away. So what are they?

After years of the government rejecting complaints about funding shortages for England’s schools, Boris Johnson is now promising to spend more. Like a constant stone in the shoe, worries about school budgets have hobbled the May government’s efforts in education – and the incoming prime minister will be told this needs to be tackled as a priority.

But how much will he offer? And will it be enough to satisfy head teachers who have been radicalised into unlikely activists over cash shortages?

Mr Johnson’s promise to increase per-pupil funding to at least £5,000 per year would mean an extra £50m – and in terms of the overall budget would be, to use one of his own phrases, only “chickenfeed”. Other campaign comments suggested reversing the decline in budgets – which would mean closer to £5bn.

So schools will be waiting to see how much bristle is on the new broom.

Investing in education is a key part of Mr Johnson’s post-Brexit pitch – and universities will be seen as important to research, boosting infrastructure and creating an economy of bright ideas. They will also be seen as an important international export opportunity and source of soft power – and all the signs are that a Johnson administration will see overseas students as a financial asset rather than an immigration problem.

The other big thorny question in the education in-tray will be whether to cut tuition fees to £7,500, as announced by a review requested by Theresa May. Universities will campaign against it, but with the prospect of an election never far away, could he really announce a U-turn on lowering fees, taking thousands off student debt?

The challenge facing Mr Johnson in terms of both health and care in England – responsibility for both is devolved – can be summed up in one word: money.

The NHS has been promised (relatively-speaking) lots of it – an extra £20bn a year by 2023. But it is how it is spent that matters. Social care – the system administered by councils to support the elderly and disabled – is in desperate need of more. But it is unclear where it will come from.

Unlike Jeremy Hunt, who drew on his experience as health secretary, Boris Johnson had relatively little to say about the NHS during the leadership campaign. Perhaps his most revealing remarks came at a private garden party for Conservative party members. He talked about the NHS being the “crowning glory” of the country, but that in return for the cash injection, reform and greater productivity were needed.

Many in the health service will scoff at this – a 2012 restructure is still fresh in the memory, and the NHS is already considered one of the most efficient health systems in the world.

Finding a solution to the social care crisis is, after Brexit, perhaps the most difficult conundrum. Tales of frail and vulnerable people going without support are appearing more regularly.

But the Tories – and Labour before them – have talked endlessly about what to do without actually doing it. Mr Johnson is, it is understood, sympathetic to the idea of over 40s paying what is effectively an extra tax to fund care for their old age.

For the past 20 years, the Home Office has struggled to come up with a modern migration system that satisfies everyone. A failure to reach a national consensus over migration was a driving factor behind many votes to leave the EU.

Yet Boris Johnson could not be more different to Theresa May on immigration. As mayor of London, he witnessed first-hand the role migration played in boosting the capital’s growth. He is so liberal on the issue that he has repeatedly floated an amnesty for migrants who arrived in the UK illegally.

His instincts therefore chime with those of Sajid Javid who, as home secretary, disowned the phrase “hostile environment” and effectively abandoned his party’s never-achieved net migration target.

But the challenge remains massive. The Home Office is still dealing with the disaster of Windrush generation deportations – while seeking to win the trust of EU citizens worried about their future in a country they have made home.

On top of that, it needs to devise a post-Brexit immigration system that many experts warn it is neither ready nor able to deliver.

Draft plans published last year propose both scrapping a cap on skilled workers and no restriction on unskilled workers coming for up to a year. But what happens if the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal? Many experts predict Brussels will demand preferential access to the UK for its citizens in return for a trade deal.

As Mr Johnson steps into Number 10, the cloud of uncertainty hovering over High Speed 2 (HS2) gets a little thicker. During the leadership campaign he said he wouldn’t scrap plans for the new rail line linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. But he did express “anxieties about the business case”.

Then, last weekend, came reports the project’s £56bn budget could balloon to as much as £85bn. Boris Johnson has already asked a former Chairman of HS2, to look at the scheme.

Significant alterations would not be straightforward. However, it feels like the new prime minister will want to make his mark.

Another project known as Northern Powerhouse Rail, which would see new and better rail lines linking cities in the north of England, got a clearer backing from Mr Johnson.

And then there is Heathrow.

Boris Johnson once promised to lie-down in front of the bulldozers to stop a third runway being built at the airport. However his opposition has become muted. Mr Johnson, I’m told, will not try to scupper the scheme.

Perhaps more immediate than big infrastructure projects is the transport everyday: how to sort the UK’s charging infrastructure so more people buy electric cars; what reforms are needed to improve the railways. A government-commissioned review will report this autumn.

Boris Johnson: Brexit and beyond – what’s in the new PM’s in-tray?}

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